Gingerbread people are a staple of winter festivities, but a depiction of the old-fashioned cookie isn’t bringing holiday cheer to a South Florida school district this season.
Diana Fedderman, the Palm Beach School Board’s former assistant superintendent, filed a complaint in federal court accusing the district and its superintendent, Michael Burke, of violating her free speech and violating Florida’s whistleblower act.
She alleges that Burke and the district demoted her after she made public statements in her personal time criticizing the Republican-controlled state government, as well as her questioning a decision by Burke to remove “the genderbread person,” a poster explaining the concepts of gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and more, from the district’s the 12th grade curriculum.
According to the Genderbread.org website, it’s a “teaching tool for breaking the big concept of gender down into bite-sized, digestible pieces,” using the classic gingerbread-man cookie shape to differentiate “anatomical sex” from “gender expression” and “attraction” and so on. Artist, author and activist Sam Killermann first came up with the idea in 2011.
The controversy over the poster isn’t brand new to Florida’s news cycle. During a March press conference around the time he signed the controversial legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents, Gov. Ron DeSantis railed against the educational display. He clenched and shook the poster, a gingerbread person with a heart, brain and sex logo where genitals usually are. They’re meant to represent the different concepts.
“This is inappropriate for kindergarteners and first graders and second graders. Parents do not want this going on,” DeSantis said, taking glances of the paper with the words “Found in Florida” above it.
According to her complaint, filed in the Southern District of Florida’s Palm Beach Division, Fedderman claims to have received a call from Burke after she tweeted, “Republicans are decimating public education. It’s time to act. Vote local.” On a Jan. 14 phone call, the complaint says, Burke told her he was made aware of her tweet when it was brought to his attention by state Rep. Mike Caruso, a Delray Beach Republican. She claimed Burke said Caruso told him he would take her Twitter post to DeSantis. Caruso wasn’t immediately available for comment last week.
She also alleged that Burke told her “this is not the first time your Twitter account has come to my attention.” She said she felt intimidated by the phone call after work hours, and deleted the tweet while on the call. In May, Fedderman received emails from a supervisor that Burke wanted the genderbread person poster removed immediately from the district's sex-education course for high-school seniors.
Fedderman expressed concern that because the district’s School Board had already approved the use of the genderbread teaching tool, it would violate state law to do so without seeking their approval. “I am concerned that the board approved this curriculum, and now we are changing it without the board's knowledge nor vote. However, I will do as instructed,” she wrote in an email to district Chief Academic Officer Glenda Sheffield.
Although a school district attorney agreed that the board should be notified, Burke maintained his stance and the poster was removed. At the end of the school year in June, Fedderman was informed her permission was being dissolved. She was eventually shuffled to a Director of Supplemental Education role with the district, a demotion to a grant-funded position that had not been staffed for over a decade and had no duties assigned to it.
City & State Florida contacted Burke for comment on the claims made in Fedderman’s complaint. A district spokesperson responded, saying the district does not comment on pending litigation. The removal of the poster was part of Burke’s work to comply with the Parental Rights in Education law, according to comments he made to the Palm Beach Post in June.
During the interview, Burke said the poster was removed because it could possibly confuse people about its target audience since it appeared to be a cartoon character. “ ‘The Genderbread Person' was problematic because it gave the impression that we were targeting a younger audience,” Burke told the Post.
In court filings responding to a motion from Fedderman, attorneys from the district contend that Fedderman “cannot show that her speech was a ‘substantial motivating factor’ in the School Board’s employment decision” to move her position and that the School Board was “well within its right to make changes to its administrative personnel team.” The lawsuit is still in its early stages.
During the June school board meeting where she received the demotion, Fedderman said there can only be one reason for her removal: Speaking up in defense of the removal of LGTBQ materials without proper review. “It’s simple. Because I am a vocal ally of the LGTBQ community,” she said.